County moving forward on new voting machines, broadband expansion

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Macon County Board of Elections’ Chairman Kathy Tinsley and Vice Chairman Gary Dills presented a proposal for new voting machines.

Dan Finnerty – Contributing Writer

The Macon County Board of Commissioners met on Tuesday, Sept. 13, to hold

Jeff Lee, of Little T Broadband Services, updated Commissioners on expansion projects status.

public hearings, discuss new business, and receive reports/presentations on previously addressed issues. Highlights from the meeting included updates on broadband projects and the purchase of new voting equipment.

Macon County Board of Elections (MCBE) presented a recommendation for purchasing new voting equipment to be first used in municipal elections for the county in 2023. Board of Elections Chairman Kathy Tinsley and Vice Chairman Gary Dills provided the commissioners with a proposal from Hart Intercivic to purchase 144 voting machines for $197,000. With current utilized county machines being 40 years old, MCBE provided input supporting their recommendation.

According to Dills, the proposed company will be $14,000 less expensive than its competitor (North Carolina only approves two companies to provide election equipment); delivers state-of-the-art, voter-friendly equipment; will provide three days of training in Franklin upon the set-up of the machine, and any recurring costs should be $9-14,000 less than any other option reviewed. MCBE also lobbied that following commissioners’ approval, a contract with Hart Intercivic would be signed in early October. Next, a simulated election will be held locally in January and if voting machines perform as expected, MCBE will prepare to finalize the purchase and approach the North Carolina Board of Elections for final approval.

The commissioners approved $200,000 for the contract in order to allow for moving forward in October. MCBE also discussed advertising options locally to solicit Macon County residents for paid temporary positions during election season. Dills also opined that making Election Day a day off from work would greatly increase the potential more people might be available to assist with election tasks.

Commissioner Joshua Young stated, “A lot of people in this community care about election integrity … election integrity is a must.”

Broadband update

Another high-interest topic covered at the meeting was an update on area broadband internet access projects and grant award status. Jeff Lee, Little T Broadband Services, a 501(c3) non-profit organization that provides advocacy and support for the development of high-speed broadband in rural Western North Carolina, provided the Board and meeting attendees with the current status of both efforts. Lee offered that despite both ambiguous Federal Communications Commission guidance and State legislative prohibitions, Little T and the Macon County Broadband Committee generated a Request for Proposal of $585,000 for the South Macon Expansion Project (SMEP) that has now blossomed into more than $1 million for funding. The project will make accessible direct broadband connectivity to approximately 2,500 area residents and businesses and will run from Franklin to Highlands city limits, via Otto, Skyline, and Scaly Mountain. In addition to SMEP, it was announced Aug. 31, that Frontier Communications received a GREAT Grant Award of $3.8 million for expansion of its existing broadband network connectivity. GREAT Grant funding was born out of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (COVID-19 driven). This award is expected to yield broadband access for an additional 2,700 customers when completed.

Other business

Other business discussed at the meeting included Highlands School additions, for which the Board authorized release of a Request for Quotation in order to generate input that can then be evaluated for selection. The initial estimate is around $8 million, but after an architect is chosen, more defined cost estimates will be required. Commissioners also announced completion of the Macon County Middle school renovation, which was finished ahead of schedule and under budget.

Three public hearing topics were also approved. These included the 2023 Schedule of Values, Standards and Rules; a proposed resolution requesting North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission establish a new “no wake zone” in the Little Choga Cove area of Nantahala Lake; and a Macon County Community Transportation Program application.

New business involved the parking lot and garage apron resurfacing/replacement at Franklin and Highlands EMS bases; consideration of an easement for Duke Energy for a Buck Creek Road improvement project; consideration of N.C. Legislature requirements for environmental health specialists; a grant agreement for Dogwood Health Trust and Macon County Housing Department; and, a Memorandum of Understanding with the Town of Franklin concerning the acquisition of property and extension of the Little Tennessee Greenway. 

Macon County Board of Commissioners meet the second Tuesday of each month. The next meeting is Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. at the Macon County Courthouse in Franklin. 

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